Thursday, June 4, 2020

Retrogrouch Tool Time: The Chain Gang

When it comes to building a collection of bike-specific tools for doing your own maintenance, you'll find it's hard to go for long without having some kind of chain-breaker tool. Almost every bike has a chain - and if you need to remove it (and there is no "master link") there really is no substitute for a proper chain tool. Over the years I've managed to acquire several.

Most chain tools look and function pretty similarly to one another. Most look almost like a miniature vise, with some kind of "cradle" to position the chain links, and a threaded driver and "T" handle with a pin at the end. You position the chain into the cradle, line up the pin to the rivet, turn the "T" handle, and drive the pin through the chain -- pushing out the rivet. To reconnect the chain, you turn it around and use a similar process to drive the rivet back into place.

Let's take a look at a few in my collection:

The "Big Daddy" of chain tools: The VAR 06. Most other chain tools look like toys compared to this thing. I've never tried (and I'm not going to), but I have a feeling this would work on motorcycle chains in addition to bicycle chains. Like most vintage VAR tools, it's built to last a lifetime, and is probably the most "collectable" of chain tools.
This is a vintage SunTour chain tool. It's a pretty nice one with a couple of features that make it unique.

The SunTour tool has this little knurled knob and an adjustable "stop" at one end, opposite the "T" handle. With the stop retracted - or fully "out" - it opens up a recess to accept the chain rivet, and the tool is in chain-breaker mode. With the stop in the other position - fully "inserted" - it acts as a backing plate and prevents the chain rivet from going too far when re-connecting the chain. 
One thing about the SunTour tool is that it's pretty old - dating to the late '70s I believe (judging from the style of the logo and the packaging - which I still have). As nice as it is, like the VAR, it isn't really ideal for the super narrow chains on modern bikes today.

This Park CT-5 is designed to work with more modern chains. The CT-5 is their "compact" version, which I suppose could be packed into a saddlebag and taken along on rides as part of a roadside emergency tool kit. Park makes a much larger "professional" version - but the little compact one works fine for a home mechanic.
So, at one point I lost the little Park tool above, and when I was looking to replace it, I found this one from Topeak:
The Topeak tool is also designed to work on modern chains. And while it's still a lot smaller than a "professional" shop mechanic's tool, it is a little larger than the compact Park one, so it offers a bit more leverage. Interesting addition - that little "c" shaped hook thing is meant to temporarily hold two ends of a chain together, making it easier to get into position and reconnect them with the press. I've used home-made versions of that clip (an old spoke works well for that) - but this one came with the Topeak tool and gets stored in the handle. Nifty.
Shortly after I bought the Topeak tool, I found the Park one again (In case anyone was wondering why I have both).

For the sake of size comparison . . .
And then there's this thing:

A pair of chain-rivet "pliers." I got these in a box of assorted bicycle tools at a garage sale. They're pretty old - I'm guessing 1960s. I have tried them out - and when it comes to removing a chain, they work surprisingly well. A good hard squeeze on the handles, and "boom" - the rivet is out, and the chain is separated. I've tried it for re-connecting the chain, but haven't had as much luck with that. Getting the chain and the rivet positioned exactly right so the pin goes back in properly is just not something I've been able to do (though it IS supposed to work that way). Maybe I should get some old bits of chain and practice.

These were made by Gian Robert - which was maybe better known for making fairly inexpensive derailleurs. There is another tool, the VAR 303, which is almost identical. A lot of old-school bike mechanics have good memories of these.
Most modern chains these days have a master link for easier removal (but you still need a chain breaker if you need to remove a couple of links from a new chain). But sometimes those master links can be tough to separate - and if it's a dirty, greasy chain (which is probably why you'd want to remove it) - it can be even more difficult. So this is a nice one to have:

A simple pliers-type tool, but the jaws are narrow and shaped to get right in between the links in a bike chain. Position those around the ends of the master link, squeeze, and the link can be separated easily.

And before you go putting a used chain back on the bike, it's a good idea to make sure it isn't worn or "stretched." There are lots of different chain gauge tools out there - and some people just use a ruler.  Here what I use:
The Park chain checker. It can tell you pretty quickly if a chain is "passa" or "non passa." It's a good thing to keep in the tool box. 
By the way, I can't help but mention that chains don't actually "stretch." The fact that an old chain will be longer than a new one is the result of microscopic wear in the chain's rollers, pins, bushings, etc., multiplied by the number of "links" in that chain (Saint Sheldon has a pretty good article on that). Just sayin'.

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